Among the entries in television’s recent reboot gold rush, “Quantum Leap,” NBC’s revival of its early-‘90s sci-fi drama, is arguably the series most deserving of a contemporary reimagining. That’s not because “Leap” was a blockbuster. It performed modestly enough to be considered a cult series by the standards of its era, clawing its way to just shy of 100 episodes across five seasons. But the high-concept hook is no less potent now than during the show’s heyday.
The original found Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula), a gifted physicist, desperate to save the time-travel technology he’s been building on the government’s dime with too little to show for it. To prove his concept and save the project, Beckett tests the technology on himself to spectacular, if inconvenient results. Beckett can indeed hurl himself to and fro about the space-time continuum, but each “leap” plops him into the consciousness of a random person facing a consequential challenge. Once he solves the problems of his latest protagonist, he leaps again, each time hoping to land back in his own timeline.
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It’s the rare television revival that feels like, if anything, someone should have made it much sooner. The concept is so rooted in the fundamental themes of lite science fiction that echoes of “Quantum Leap” continue to this day. From “Manifest” and “Severance” to “Shining Girls” and “Outer Range,” television is as invested as ever in time travel, body swapping, brain hacking — and the chaos and dissociation left in their wake. Even better, the show’s premise has outlasted its specific plot in the public consciousness. “Leap” remains a solid, if esoteric nerd culture reference, but try mentioning “Sam Beckett” in conversation and expect a hard left into existentialist theater.
Though the creators of the new version – Steven Lilien and Bryan Wynbrandt – could have easily built from scratch on such a sturdy concept, they seem all too eager to dive into the thin mythology of the original, for those still interested. Raymond Lee stars as Dr. Ben Song, the gifted physicist who’s become the custodian of the Quantum Leap technology since Sam got hopelessly stuck in the wormhole. (The original series ended with an anti-climactic intertitle informing the audience that Sam never made it home after all.) Ben and his team have restarted the program, in part with the mission to finally bring Sam back after decades of Forest Gumping his way through history.
Alas, there’s a more pressing issue: Ben abruptly leaps without telling anyone, as Sam did before him. But while Sam’s motives for testing out the nascent technology were obvious, Ben’s are completely opaque. Not even Addison (Caitlin Bassett), Ben’s colleague and fiancée, knows what made him fling himself into the past just hours after their engagement party. Addison assumes the role of the holographic executive assistant originally played by Al Calavicci (the late Dean Stockwell), but because Ben’s memory was wiped with his first leap, she can only provide information to Ben, rather than gather it from him.
Addison gets put to the test in the pilot, which finds Ben inhabiting the body of a henchman in over his head in 1985. The episodic stories are, as ever, where “Leap” comes alive. The show operates as a kind of Swiss army procedural, and each episode has the potential to ricochet in just about any direction. The fun of each episode comes with finding out what imbroglio Ben has zapped into this time and figuring out the details as he does. Unfortunately, the relationship between agent and handler is less fascinating than in the original. While Sam and Al’s unlikely friendship lent a prickly energy to their interactions, Ben and Addison’s romantic connection makes their new dynamic as holograph and holographée more awkward and sad than entertaining.
That said, this “Leap” is also less dependent on that core relationship. The original was essentially a two-hander with Bakula and Stockwell. Meanwhile, this version expands the team to a full complement of genius grunts led by Herb “Magic” Williams (Ernie Hudson), a character from a beloved two-part episode of the forebear. It’s no surprise to see Martin Gero, the creator of “Blindspot” as the showrunner on “Leap.” When Magic and the team are doing their support work, “Leap” most resembles Gero’s other show about an amnesiac withholding secrets from everyone including themselves. That almost certainly means, if “Leap” has a long life, supporting character side plots that are hit-or-miss by definition.
But then, inconsistency will always be a risk for a show like “Leap” that operates like an anthology, morphing into something entirely new with each episode. While this version embraces serialization, each episode can be as successful only as its episodic adventure allows it to be. The story in the pilot (the only episode screened for critics) is diverting enough for an episode with a lot of heavy lifting to do. But every episode is a new opportunity for the show to sink or swim on its own merits (especially considering Bakula’s public refusal to join the cast makes at least one overarching storyline harder to accomplish.) In other words: look before you “Leap.”
“Quantum Leap” premieres on NBC on Sept. 19 at 10 p.m., and episodes stream on Peacock the next day.
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